The French Count´s Legacy

Pico de Fogo dominates the valley

Fogo is the highest island in the Cape Verdes, and naturally its volcano was on our hiking list.  There are no good anchorages around the island´s steep-to shores, and we left Otra Vida anchored in the small port of Furna on the adjacent island of Brava with a local person watching over her, and took the inter-island ferry to Sao Felipe, Fogo.  A pleasant treat to be on a boat knowing someone else is responsible for navigation.

Fogo has a unique settlement in the caldera of the volcano, founded by an interesting Frenchman, the Count de Montrond.  He arrived in 1870 in circumstances that remain vague – either he killed someone in France, or his lifestyle was too scandalous even for a French aristocrat.  Either way, his family decided that his monthly allowance was contingent on him remaining outside France.

The village, squeezed between lava flows and the caldera rim
Part of the vineyard in Cha de Caldeiras
Having decided to settle in the uninhabited caldera, far away from prying French eyes, he wasted no time sorting out life as he wanted it.  Vines were planted, coffee too, and winemaking and production of goat cheese started.  The Count also began his lifelong project of populating the valley with the help of the 47 wives he collected.  Most of the people in Cha de Caldeiras today are descended from the Count, some more directly than others, including the owner of the small guest house we stayed in, Cecilio Montrond.

Cecilio described the interesting family arrangements of the caldera, still influenced by the Count´s example.  Unlike his father (2 wives, 24 children), or his uncle (5 wives), Cecilio emphasised how modern he was, having “only” one wife.  Elena, as is typical in the caldera, has children by more than one man, and all six children (three by Cecilio) live together in Cecilio´s house.   Everyone seems to get along fine.

Early morning hike up the peak
Our guide for the hike up the volcano, Azuko, was born and raised in the caldera, and has African features and a noticeably pale skin.  His great-great-grandfather came up here to work for the Count … and somewhere along the line the Count’s genes got mixed in with one of his daughters.

After our early morning hike up the volcano and a wonderfully child-like descent in giant steps down steep volcanic sand we were keen to sample the local wines.  We saw what looked like stray vines growing in clusters on our drive up in an aluguer (shared pick-up truck) the previous day.  It took a little time to realise that these bush vines are actually part of the vineyard, along with some more densely planted areas, all impossibly green against the black volcanic sand background. 

Maret coming down the volcanic black sand, dust trail blazing behind.  Much, much steeper and more fun than this photo makes it look.
We sat at an outdoor table at one of the simple restaurants in the village and ordered the local red wine, Manecom.  The doce (sweet) version is preferred locally but the seco (dry) was more to our taste. It´s over-extracted, jammy, tannic, very minerally, and oxidised –  am I selling this well! – and perhaps it wouldn’t work outside the caldera, but here looking up at the volcano and surrounded by lava flows it goes down easily and is very agreeable indeed, especially with the caldera´s salty barnyardy quiejo fresco (fresh goats cheese).
Approaching the village

Soon a rather well served French guy who lives in the village started talking to us, the latest tourist novelties on the terrace.  His English and Spanish were even worse than my French, so the rhetoric he directed our way was aided by a good amount of gesticulation. He talked of England and how General de Gaulle spent time there which redeemed the country in his eyes.  Next up is Guy Debord whose name is on the T-shirt I am wearing.  Debord and the soixante-huitards are not to his taste … he wildly mimicks Debord as a charlatan and poseur, arms flying, eyes rolling.  After a few more glasses of wine he gets a little rowdy, running to the road shaking his fist and shouting in French at some American-Cape Verdians touring their ancestral country on quad bikes, equipped with imported impatience at a 30 minute wait for lunch, expensive sunglasses, youthful energy and designer t-shirts – an intrusion of reality into the Frenchman´s de Gaullian world of judgementalism, order and hierarchy. We learn little of him other than his politics and that he lives here now.

Casa Ramiro
After a pleasant lunch of cremated fish and smoky grilled chicken we stroll down the village´s only road to Casa Ramiro, a supply shop and bar run by another descendant of the Count, looking like a displaced Breton fisherman stranded in the mountains.  The bar is the local place for live music.  Among the patrons is a visitor from Paris, also part of the Count´s gene pool, with dreadlocks and sunglasses and the relaxed urbane sophistication of a successful musician returning home, playing guitar and singing impressively with a half dozen other local people on various instruments.  This is not a concert, just Sunday afternoon at the pub.  The music gets louder and more energetic, and people start dancing.  
As the afternoon sun gets low a white guy walks into the bar and starts a conversation with us.  He is vague on many things, and that is just fine – one´s past here is but a detail.  He finally admits he is Canadian, with the enigmatic comment “that is close enough”.  We talk about the Cape Verdes and then about South America and the Amazon and northern Brazil, looking for insights and tips for our travels in the next few months.  His answers continue to be rather non specific, like he doesn’t want to be tied down to having been in any particular place at any particular time.  He says he has never had to work for money (fortunate guy) and now travels.  I can´t help but feel that there is something more to his story, but am – as I´m sure he intended – no wiser as to what that is after an hour´s conversation.  After sunset he goes outside to stand on a wall and watch dusk.  A few minutes later he suddenly jumps down, sprints over to the window next to our table, and tells us we really must sail to Ushuaia for the scenery.
Sunday afternoon music

Walking back to our little pousada we come across Cecilio in another bar.  He is listening to a football match on a small radio, and relaying information on the eventual triumph of Benfica to others in the bar, along with talking with us in his rapid fire heavily accented English.  After talking for some time I realise that his understanding of English is far more limited than his ability to speak it, and he is finally surprised to learn that we live on a boat … the comprehension only coming when I press my shoddy French into service.  He plys us with more beer and grogue, stories of the village and the volcano, and lots of laughter.  He is the living incarnation of the spirit of the Count, slightly crazy, piratical in demeanour, high energy, unique.
After the hike

The village has no grid electricity or mains water.  Water is collected as run off from the surrounding hills, and what electricity there is comes from small generators run for a few hours in the early evening at a handful of the places in the village, including our pousada.  There is, however, good cellphone coverage and with that good internet access.  I ask Cecilio about the electricity situation and he says it is all about politics.  One can easily imagine why: a French Count arrived in a barren valley, helped himself generously to the local female population, created a tribe, and lived differently.  Life up here continues to be different from life elsewhere in the Cape Verdes.  There is no evidence of police or any of the standard accoutrements of society.  One gets the impression that they do their own thing in the Caldera to their own rules, and the Cape Verdians do their own thing everywhere else, and neither interact much.  Not that there is any obvious tension, rather just that this little community is independent, like a mini country.  It seems like it would be an excellent place to disappear into, and perhaps like the Count that is what some of the people we met here are doing.

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